Vanity Fair: Humbugs, Fools and Othered Visions

Based on the 1848 novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair is set against Victorian London and the Napoleonic Wars, following Becky Sharp (Olivia Cooke) in her attempt to elevate herself out of poverty into English High Society. It’s “a vain, wicked, foolish place” narrates Michael Palin, as Thackeray. “Full of all sorts of humbugs, falses and pretension. Not a moral place, certainly, or a merry one.” True enough, “a world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” It’s a story of crime and villainy, sex, dancing, fighting and more, taking her to the court of King George VI via Waterloo battle grounds, leaving broken hearts and lost fortunes in her wake.

ITV Studios and Mammoth Screen (Poldark, Victoria) are no pushovers when it comes to the period genre and their adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is no exception. Olivia Cooke in the lead role very much reminded me of Rose Aldridge (Lily James) in Downton Abbey. Coming into this character, let’s not pretend Cooke is a rookie, including co-starring in Bates Motel and having a leading role in Steven Spielberg’s latest film Ready Player One with Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse). Cooke is fabulous as Becky Sharp. She’s going places, certainly. Sharp is quite the eccentric, like Rose breaking conventions of English High Society and it’s fantastic to watch.

Olivia Cooke gives a standing ovation-worthy performance as Becky Sharpe
(Vanity Fair, ITV)

Following in the footsteps of Victoria and Poldark, Vanity Fair is very modern in how the story is told. How it’s shot is really 2018 and the use of modern music in the trailers and promotional footage was good too. They work really well. Vanity Fair to 2018 is what Bleak House was to the mid-noughties, showing the naysayers the period genre is more than RP accents, corsets and witty comebacks. Additionally, watching Michael Palin’s intro at the start of each episode accompanied with “All Along the Watchtower” by Addict. Whilst shows like the CW’s Reign failed when it came to music, the modern music in Vanity Fair is delicately implemented. Good job.

Along with Doctor Who, this show has done wonders for representation. When it comes to period dramas, people of colour are a rarity, except when they are poor immigrants and / or slaves. Vanity Fair hasn’t bought into the whitewashing of history. Dido Elizabeth Belle is an example of a Black Georgian. Victoria Davies was Queen Victoria’s Black goddaughter, daughter to Sarah Forbes Bonetta (an enslaved then liberated African). Bill Richmond, the Black Georgian boxer from Staten Island who took the London East End by storm. When we talk about representation we’re often talking about minorities doing the same things as heterosexual, cisgendered White people.

Sam played by Richie Campbell is simply a vile person, but played to perfection
(Vanity Fair, ITV)

The Black Victorians and the Black Georgians before them weren’t all slaves and poor immigrants. They were farmers and shop owners but they were also rich, rubbing shoulders with English High Society too. The first man of African descent to vote in a British election was Ignatius Sancho in 1774. Seeing Rhoda Swartz (Sienna Kelly) and Sam in this series is great for representation and for changing the narrative that ‘Black people came here as slaves and Windrush migrants’. POCs now and then do / did all the things Whites did. Seeing the world through othered visions is vital to all, Whites included. Images travel and Britain is not only White. We can’t simply tell one story.

Hearing Palin sermonise Vanity Fair seven times, you begin to draw correlations between that place and perhaps New York or London or Moscow and every town, city and village in this world. You will find all things he talks about, no matter how small. Our environment, regardless if it’s the urban or the rural, will have imitations of life following his very Dickensian performance. From your Tulkinhorns to Darcys and Bingleys to Cathys, Lintons, Heathcliffs and Smallweeds, you will find all manners of fools, humbugs and woe. But you will also find merriment. Even amongst the badness and greed from folks like Fagin and Colonel Brandon, you will find your Nancys, won’t you?

Even in the greedy hearts of men, there’s humanity and that’s ‘Vanity Fair’
(Vanity Fair, ITV)

Vanity Fair is like any other town or city, it has its many dark corners for those who walk down the road of temptation. But there’s love and friendship and morality, laughter and children singing their songs of innocence in the wake of adulthood. This show has all of that, with excellent performances, music, cinematography, charm and zeal.

Truly a cornerstone of the genre and a testament to all that is good and bad in people… one of the best series of the year, full of life and energy that really can make the most sour sap force a smirk